An Open Letter to CUPE 3903

Dear Members of the CUPE Executive

With each year, comes hope for change, but for change one must first recognize the problem. This year’s Executive ran on a platform of transparency, inclusivity and anti-racism. Over the last year, as a co-chair of student organization Accessibility, Community, Equity Committee (ACE), I’ve become aware of the ongoing issues of anti-Black racism that seems to have permeated the union walls, perhaps leaking from white supremacist university infrastructure, or perhaps the residual impact of the labour union movement’s notorious racist and misogynistic history. ACE is mostly comprised of racialized students who are acutely aware of the issues surrounding identity and the way our bodies are read and pathologized on a daily basis both on and off campus. This letter has been reviewed and enriched by current and past members of the ACE committee, and so is presented as a collective commentary and call to action.

In the last 6 months, ACE has been contacted frequently to seek support for the ongoing inundation of anti-Black-racism CUPE Executives and parts of the local have been involved with, starting with the push back in hiring a highly qualified Black woman, due to unfounded allegations by her former employer, which reeked of racist retaliation. And yet the Executive and parts of the local were quite willing to engage in anti-Black-racism under the guise of criminal discrimination – regardless that no charges or verdict have occurred in this matter. Most recently, we have been asked to support a member, who was a strong advocate on behalf of racialized students and students with disabilities, who chose rescind her 2016-2017 Executive nomination application versus continue to navigate the ongoing racist push back by the Executives and insinuation that she may steal a lap top that came with her position. The fact that the member was treated like a criminal is horrific and shameful. I would like bring to your attention our own CUPE 3903 equity union mandate:

Union solidarity is based on the principle that union members are equal and deserve mutual respect at all levels. Any behaviour that creates conflict prevents us from working together to strengthen our union – ** we can see a violation of this mandate based on the ongoing anti-black racism from the local.

As unionists, mutual respect, cooperation and understanding are our goals. We should neither condone nor tolerate blatant behaviour that undermines the dignity or self-esteem of any individual or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment. – ** the lack accountability from others regarding ongoing anti-black racism from executives is a violation of this principal. 

Discriminatory speech or conduct which is racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic hurts and thereby divides us. So too, does discrimination on the basis of ability, age, class, religion, language and ethnic origin.

Sometimes discrimination takes the form of harassment. Harassment means using real or perceived power to abuse, devalue or humiliate. Harassment should not be treated as a joke. The uneasiness and resentment that it creates are not feelings that help us grow as a union.”

Anti-Black racism manifests in lethal policies towards Black people, police shootings of Black people, high incarceration rates, high dropout rates, complete absence of the epistemologies of Black people from the curriculum, etc. It is a racism that must be understood through histories of enslavement, through the environmental catastrophe that was the trade in Africans and the slave plantation, and the knowledges which justified all this.

I have participated in various forums and panels that ask, “Where are the Black faculty at York?” this was the continuation of a conversation started in a film 8 years that was created by a Faculty of Environmental Studies alumni, Blakka Ellis. However, in the context of a growing student movement against anti-Black racism in our city and in the community around York University, we might reframe this question to ask: “What does anti-Black racism look like at York?” Our students have given us the answer to this over and over again when they have documented and pointed to the following issues:

  • The absence of Black representation in union executives or staff who look like the people targeted in anti-Black racism;
  • Few, if any, executives who have demonstrated a critical race analysis or understand and advocate from a perspective that names and confronts anti-Black racism;
  • The circulation of old anthropological ideas around phenotype, as well as new racist ideas around the social construction of race that denies the materiality of racism, and so on;
  • Poor understanding and often a denial of the systematized violence and racism directed at Black people, especially those who are visibly ‘Black looking’

Many of you learn that race is socially constructed.  Nevertheless, and as you know, these “constructions” have a long history of covert and overt material effects. It has been carefully documented that Black and Indigenous groups are most affected by these. The growing force of a movement like #BLACKLIVESMATTER that names police-generated violence draws attention to this as does the movement against missing and murdered Indigenous women.  At this time, calling attention to the social construction of race can serve to deflect attention from the lethal violence with which all Black and Indigenous communities are familiar and the consequences of this for everyday lives.

As a Black woman I visited the #BLACKLIVESMATTER tent city protest, where many of my community have slept for 300 hours. Many Black students were insulted by the notice of your support in CUPE’s newsletter, and by the audacity for you to be present at the BLMTO Black Out rally with your CUPE 3903 flags, with Black students in solidarity with Black lives. Many York Black students/your members found this violent and insulting. You are using Black lives as your props and to stage CUPE 3903 as an equitable organization—Black students want you to stop! You must stand in solidarity with your Black union members before promoting yourself as an ally to our Black communities. The hypocrisy of promoting CUPE 3903 as an ally, while 2 letters are circulating regarding your perpetuation of the very racism and anti-black-racism you state you are against.

Signed,

Accessibility, Community, Equity Committee (ACE)

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